The creative counterculture strikes back
Budapest is in the midst of a heated dialogue about its future. Earlier this year, alongside the re-election of conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, there was a rise in votes for the ultra-conservative Jobbik party, whose values include anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiments. And, while gay pride parades are a cause for celebration in most other cities around the world, the one in Budapest this summer was marred by bullying and death threats to LGBT campaigners. But 2014 also saw a growing and inspiring counterculture asserting itself. In August, “Pimpikes Dream,” an LGBT-friendly community center opened in District V and in November, the prime minister was forced to shelve a plan for an internet tax, after record numbers of protesters in Budapest loudly rejected the idea. Events like the globally crowdsourced design contest for Liget Budapest and the internationally recognized ArtMarket Budapest show how creativity and ingenuity are pushing back against the tide of repressive policies.
Hub for progress
Brody House, the famous boutique hotel and headquarters for many Budapestian bohemians, has done much to change the city’s artistic landscape through projects that support and promote local and international artists, musicians and filmmakers. Today, it’s a hub for innovation and creativity, offering local artists and performers professional venues, studios, and coworking spaces. This year, it began hosting a series of monthly literary dinners, with “bespoke menus” and visits from big shot authors from Russia, Germany, and France, as well as from local author Tibor Fischer.
Many people in Budapest have expressed concern over Prime Minister Orban’s policies. Earlier this year, he took steps to prevent NGOs in Hungary from receiving foreign funding, a step many viewed as an attempt to thwart more progressive forces within the country. Despite government intimidation, many openly protested Orban’s decision to “audit” these NGOs, drawing international attention in the process. In October, a protest in the city’s Blaha Lujza Square, led by Hungarian NGO Human Platform, adopted the slogan “Make Yourself Free” and called for more people to oppose the government policy.
Budapest is split up into districts, each with its own town hall and mayor. The working class area, known as Józsefváros in the VIII District, has historically suffered from poor infrastructure and facilities, and its unsavory reputation has led locals to refer to it as more or less a ghetto. This year, the local government expanded its decade-long project to renovate and clean up that part of the city, investing 4 billion Euros into the project. New roads were laid down, a brand-new market hall opened in March in Teleki Square, and a much-needed green space was added.
When the memorial to the victims of the German invasion of 1944 commenced construction in Szabadság Square in April under the cover of darkness,controversy followed. Some claimed that the monument falsified the Horthy era (named for Admiral Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s controversial leader during World War II who had alliances with Hitler) and glossed over Hungary’s involvement in the Holocaust. Protesters constructed a makeshift “living memorial,” opposite to the statue, bringing personal objects belonging to those who died in concentration camps and placing stones, old photographs, and candles around it.
The city’s growing metro network expanded earlier this year with the long awaited opening of Line 4, which runs from the city’s fringes in Buda to downtown Pest. In addition to its celebrated architecture and rather psychedelic design aesthetic, it’s the first automated metro route in Central-Eastern Europe. Another transportation improvement came with the MOL BuBi bike rental system, which opened in September and registered 100,000 users in its first month in operation.
During 2014, the city’s Museum of Fine Arts hosted the Liget Budapest Project in an effort to revitalize the grounds of City Park. The design contest is accepting proposals from international and Hungarian architects for a complete renewal of the park’s green space as well as the construction of several new buildings, all with the goal of making the site a European cultural hub.
Despite Budapest’s lingering problems with anti-Semitism, a youth-led movement formed this year to promote tolerance of all forms. Launched in March, the European-wide No Hate Speech Movement was anchored in Budapest with the European Youth Center Budapest hosting a five-day seminar on the effects of Islamophobia and religious intolerance. The wider online campaign, which will run until 2015, is also focused on cyberbullying, promoting the concept of “net citizenship,” and creating tolerant, human rights-focused online spaces.
In the warmer months, crowds flock to the city’s unique kerts, outdoor pubs that are constructed out of the city’s ruins. The most popular of these, Szimpla Kert (meaning “simple garden”), is the pioneer of this now-infamous nightlife trend and celebrated its 10th anniversary earlier this year. Budapest is buzzing at all hours, with 24-hour bars like Kakas on Deák Square and numerous street festivals celebrating all facets of local life, from food and drink to culture and the arts.
Jennifer Walker is an ex-physicist turned freelance writer. She grew up in Budapest and returned a couple of years ago to fall in love with the city all over again. She's passionate about the arts, underground culture, dilapidated art nouveau buildings, languages, and travel—all reasons why she decided to move back.